Next spring the Los Angeles LGBT Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary with the opening of the Anita May Rosenstein Campus and a multimillion-dollar major expansion, and nobody could be giddier about it than chef and board member Susan Feniger.
The center, which has seven facilities across West Hollywood, has provided LGBT individuals and their families with health and social services, housing, and cultural and educational programs since 1969. The new campus will be across the street from the Village at Ed Gould Plaza in Hollywood.
Feniger tells L.A. Weekly she was introduced to the center when the brother of Liz Lachman, her partner and now wife, was battling AIDS. “The center was very helpful at the time with information, giving us direction and input on how he could get housing and areas of support. That was about 18 years ago."
Feniger was invited to take a tour of the facilities and was overwhelmed at the work that was being done to help the LGBT community. When she was asked to join the board, she jumped at the chance.
“I’ve always been drawn to helping youth and seniors. Even when I was in high school, I tutored underprivileged kids and became a mentor,” says the co-owner of the Border Grill empire. “So I felt this was very close to my heart and it’s where I wanted to put my energy."
Many of the kids who come into the center are off the streets. According to Feniger, on any given night in L.A. there are about 6,000 young people on the street and 40 percent of them are LGBT. Within three days they’re tricking for food or drugs to survive. And there are very few beds for any young people in the city, she says.
The new intergenerational campus on Santa Monica Boulevard and McCadden Place will include 99 units of affordable housing for seniors, 100 beds for homeless youth, new senior and youth centers, 25 units of supportive housing for young people, a commercial kitchen to feed and train homeless youth and seniors, and ground-floor retail space, including a cafe, with plenty of parking.
The center currently serves about 80,000 meals a year and welcomes more than 42,000 visitors a month. The existing McDonald Wright Building on Schrader Avenue will be converted into a medical facility.
“We’re spoiled being in L.A.,” Feniger says, referring to the general acceptance of homosexuality. “Many people come here thinking there will be hope here. There are heartbreaking stories of 13-year-olds coming out to their parents in other parts of the country and being kicked out the front door with suitcase in hand and told never to come back. It still happens. With no tools of how to live in the world.”
The Highland Youth Center provides classes for kids on how to get their GED, and counseling for those who want to go on to college. It has a job placement program for kids and older people. There are 11 full-time physicians, therapists and a pharmacy.
With more than 600 employees, the center in Los Angeles is the largest LGBT center in the world.
“We just opened a trans program and clinic,” Feniger says. “There is great work being done to help. If you’re a young LGBT and your family isn’t accepting, we help you find friends and support.”
Feniger says her own coming out was easier.
“Many people in my age group grew up thinking they were the only ones. I grew up Jewish in Toledo, Ohio. I grew up straight, I had no idea,” she remembers. “I was a tomboy, never thought about it. I had boyfriends. I never really was aware of anything, whereas my wife knew from the time she was 5 years old.
"Liz grew up in Detroit. She told her mom when she was 12 and her mom told her she’d grow out of it. She even tried to have a boyfriend to see if something would shift for her. I didn’t have that struggle, because it wasn’t until after I dropped out of college and was living with my high school boyfriend Josh Schweitzer that it hit me. We got married as a Father’s Day present for my dad. I couldn’t think of anything else to give him."
They were married by a justice of the peace during a break at work. After they divorced, Feniger introduced him to her new friend and business partner, Mary Sue Milliken. They’ve been married ever since and have two sons. It was the beginning of two long-lasting unions, as Milliken and Feniger continue to build out the Border Grill brand.
Feniger’s second wedding ceremony was a bit of a repeat performance. Lachman’s 95-year-old grandmother would call them on a regular basis asking when there would be a wedding. So they got married for her, Feniger says.
“Two years ago — we’ve been together for 23 — we went with her to the children’s courthouse in East L.A. and got married on the judge’s lunch break. There were stuffed animals all around and I was dressed in my chef’s clothes. We had lunch at a local diner and I went back to work. The owner sent us out two Champagnes in jelly jars."
Her own family was less accepting and didn’t speak to her or invite her and Lachman for holiday celebrations for years.
But Feniger’s community and its support give her an enormous amount of strength, and she says she's proud to give back.
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It was the center’s CEO, Lorri Jean, who recommended the lesbian chef for the board position over a decade ago.
“Susan has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for our work by helping to produce Simply DiVine, and she gives generously from her own pockets,” Jean says. “She is incredibly passionate about the center's work and is helping us to develop a new program that will provide careers for LGBT youth experiencing homelessness and possibly part-time jobs for low-income seniors. She’s been a part of our international leadership development program, traveling with us to China to help strengthen the movement there.
"Best of all, Susan is one of the nicest, kindest people on the planet."
Editor's note: Leaders from L.A. Pride helped curate content showcasing the local LGBT community for the June 8-14 issue of L.A. Weekly.